October 23, 2012

Supervising Your Team Electronically: E-mail Dos and Don’ts

In this technology-driven era, lawyers are prone to sending flurries of e-mails to their team members—handing out assignments, sending changes to documents and much more. However, just as well-prepared e-mails can be invaluable management tools, poorly written ones can create serious issues.

Joe, a partner in a busy litigation boutique, recently sought coaching on how to improve his communications with his team. He couldn’t understand why his team members complained about his management style and why he wasn’t getting the results he expected from them. Most of his communications with his secretary, paralegal and associates were done via e-mail, not unusual in today’s law firm. The primary question, then, was whether his e-mail correspondence had anything to do with the communication issues.

Here’s what an examination of his e-mails and interviews of his staff members revealed:

  • Joe sent long one-paragraph e-mails that were difficult to decipher.
  • He put a “high priority” flag on all his e-mail messages.
  • The assignments he gave weren’t clearly explained, and he never included his expectations for the work.
  • He used e-mails to criticize work product, and it wasn’t particularly constructive criticism.
  • Most of his Subject lines were either blank or failed to state the purpose of the e-mail.

Do you recognize yourself in any of the above? Managing by e-mail can be challenging—and it needs to be accomplished in a thoughtful, organized way to ensure you get good results from your team.

First, Consider If E-mail Is the Right Strategy
If you constantly use e-mail as your “go-to” tool for communications with those you manage, take some time out to consider whether this is really the best strategy. While e-mail, if used effectively, can be an efficient means of communicating, there are many instances where the pros of using voice-to-voice communication still outweigh the efficiency of managing by e-mail. In deciding whether to use oral or written communication, think about the following:

  • Who am I assigning this project to? Does this person respond better to oral or written instructions?
  • Is this assignment short and clear, or does it have a lot of moving parts? Short, unambiguous assignments lend themselves to e-mail communications more than complex ones.
  • Would an in-person meeting with this individual, even if the assignment is short, help make the connection stronger, so that future assignments via e-mail will be more effectively done?

Experts say at least 70 percent of our in-person communication consists of nonverbal components—facial expression, tone of voice, hand gestures, body language—which, clearly, are missing when we think about e-mail communication. This is one of the most problematic elements of using e-mail to manage team members. The tone behind an e-mail can be misinterpreted and result in unintentional conflict. Taking a look at Joe’s e-mails, for example, those reading them could interpret them as curt, even angry, not what he meant to have happen.

With this in mind, as you assign and manage the work of others, consider whether communication on a particular project or task should be done by e-mail or orally. Whenever possible, use oral communication and then, if necessary, follow up with an e-mail, stating what has been agreed on or reiterating next steps. This is particularly useful for more complex assignments.

In addition, in-depth constructive criticism should always be handled either in-person or by phone if the person isn’t in the same office with you. A redlined document showing your corrections and the like can be sent to a subordinate, of course, but if changes are extensive, explain these orally. Many project managers send their document edits to those they manage with little or no commentary about the changes made. Those are wasted opportunities for individuals to learn from feedback.

Pointers for Writing Effective E-mails to Your Team
So, how should supervisors write future e-mails to team members? Using the following suggestions will increase the effectiveness of your messages.

  • Start with a focused Subject line. Every Subject line should clearly and succinctly state the purpose of the e-mail. For example, instead of the generic words “Follow Up,” use words such as “Meeting Weds. at 2 p.m. re: Smith Matter.” Or, if you’re attaching a document for the recipient’s attention, don’t just say “Smith Matter”— use the words “Redline of Smith Motion” instead. This immediately tells the recipient the purpose of the e-mail, and if he or she needs to search for it later, it will be easy to find.
  • Limit the quantity of words in your Subject lines, too. There are actually some people who put rambling full sentences in there, which not only annoys and confuses recipients, but may get an email snagged by spam filters. Full sentences go in the body of the message.
  • Use “high priority” sparingly. We’ve all come across people who like to use a “high priority” flag (the red exclamation point) on every single one of their e-mails. After a while, you become conditioned to ignore that “high priority” flag because every e-mail they send cannot possibly be a high priority! Using this flag only when your message concerns something of pressing importance ensures that your e-mail will be given the attention it deserves. Of course, if something is truly urgent or critical, maybe you should use the phone instead.
  • Cover one topic at a time. It’s best that each e-mail discuss one subject at a time. If, for example, you’re sending someone comments on a document for a case but you also want to set up a meeting regarding a different matter, send two separate e-mails to keep things straight. The second subject might get overlooked if it’s included in one long e-mail—not to mention that it will be totally missed if it gets buried at the end of a subsequent trail of exchanges concerning the first topic.
  • Convey appreciation for the work. When using e-mail to give constructive criticism, you need to apply the same rules that are used for in-person feedback. Start with the positive. It could be as simple as, “I appreciate your work on this matter, and the sources you cited are particularly helpful. As to the motion itself, some revisions are needed to clarify our argument.” Busy as you are, you may be thinking, “Do I really have to take the time to write something nice when I just want the document revised?” The answer is yes.

    As a manager, you always want to find ways to motivate your people and reinforce positive behaviors and skills while giving constructive feedback, so they continue to learn and develop. This was a big issue for Joe, whose redlined documents came with very little feedback, no explanation for changes he made, and no comments on what the individual did well. As a result, his e-mails demotivated his team members.
  • Clearly describe any assignments in your e-mails. Make sure you include necessary background information, expectations for the finished product, deadlines and helpful resources. Reread your e-mail from the point of view of the person receiving it. Is it clear what you want and when you want it? Are you making any assumptions about the individual’s ability to decipher your instructions simply because you know all the background information? Do you provide any examples, templates or resources that will make the person more efficient in the assignment? And if your e-mail requires a response, are you specific about the kind of response needed?
  • Use formatting to clarify further. Look at the way you’ve formatted the body of your e-mail. Is it one long paragraph or is it broken up so that it’s easy to read? For example, putting “Background” at the beginning of one paragraph, “Assignment” at the beginning of another, and “Deadline” at the front of another is an easy-to-read format that immediately tells the recipient which paragraph contains which details. If a project has multiple steps, placing numbers before each step is effective, too. A block of text is very difficult to read and makes it easy to miss something important.

Moving to a Smoother Communication Style
I’m happy to report that Joe’s management by e-mail is going much smoother these days. Notably, as he began to make needed changes in his approach, he asked his staff for feedback to ensure more effective e-mails, too. In addition, he decided to step out of his office more often to deliver assignments and feedback in person. While he may not win a “Boss of the Year” award anytime soon, he is making great strides in his management style and has learned the importance of viewing his e-mails as a key element in his supervising strategy.